Syria on Monday rebuffed as a conspiracy an Arab League call for President Bashar al-Assad to step down in favour of a unity government to calm a 10-month-old revolt in which thousands of Syrians have been killed.
Lebanese Foreign Minister Adnan Mansour criticised the League's move, saying its ministers had taken an unbalanced approach to the crisis by disregarding violence perpetrated by Assad's opponents.
Damascus had not rejected the League's decision to keep Arab observers in Syria one month longer, Mansour said, even though critics say they have not stemmed the bloodshed and only bought time for Assad to crush his opponents.
Many Syrians remain defiant, however. Tens of thousands turned out in the Damascus suburb of Douma on Monday under the protection of rebel Free Syrian Army fighters to mourn 11 people killed by the security forces, activists and a resident said.
Security forces, apparently keen to avoid a confrontation, stayed outside the area, where fighting had erupted overnight.
The Sudanese general who heads the monitoring mission said violence had dipped in the past month, contradicting accounts by Syrian activists who say hundreds of people were killed.
After the arrival of the mission, the intensity of violence began to decrease, Mohammed al-Dabi told a news conference at the Cairo-based Arab League.
Saudi Arabia, a foe of Syria's ally Iran, undermined the mission's credibility when it withdrew its own monitors on Sunday, accusing Damascus of defying an earlier Arab peace plan.
Responding to the new League plan unveiled in Cairo on Sunday, an official Syrian source told the state news agency SANA that the initiative, which told Assad to hand power to a deputy pending elections, was a conspiracy against Syria.
Syria rejects the decisions of the Arab League ministerial council ... and considers them a violation of its national sovereignty and a flagrant interference in its internal affairs, the source said.
Rami Khouri, a Beirut-based commentator, said the unusually bold Arab initiative was clearly bad news for Assad, one of a string of authoritarian Arab leaders to face popular uprisings in the past year. Three have been overthrown.
The fact that Arab countries would propose such a clear intervention and essentially order him to step aside and give him a mechanism to do so is quite a dramatic sign of how much credibility and legitimacy he has lost in the region, he said.
The United Nations says more than 5,000 people have been killed by the security forces since an anti-Assad revolt began in March. The authorities say they are fighting foreign-backed terrorists who have killed 2,000 soldiers and police.
EU foreign ministers tightened sanctions against Syria on Monday, adding 22 people and eight entities to a list of banned people and groups, and said Assad's repression was unacceptable.
The message from the European Union is clear, said the EU's foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton. The crackdown must stop immediately.
Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal said on Sunday Syria had not met the terms of an Arab plan agreed in November that called on Assad to end violence, remove troops from urban areas, free detainees, allow peaceful protests and open a dialogue.
We are calling on the international community to bear its responsibility, and that includes our brothers in Islamic states and our friends in Russia, China, Europe and the United States, Faisal said, calling for all possible pressure on Syria.
Splits among the League's 22 members have complicated its diplomacy on Syria, but in the end only Lebanon refused to approve the latest proposal, although Algeria objected to taking the plan to the United Nations Security Council.
Burhan Ghalioun, head of the main opposition Syrian National Council, welcomed the initiative, saying it confirms that all Arab countries today consider the tyrannical regime of Bashar al-Assad to be finished and that it must be replaced.
The U.N. Security Council is also divided on how to respond, with Western powers demanding tougher sanctions and an arms embargo, measures opposed by Assad's longstanding ally Russia.
A Western diplomat said the tough Arab League stance would put more pressure on Moscow to drop its objections to Security Council action against the Syrian leadership. The Russians are not putting all their chips on Assad, the diplomat said.
Joshua Landis, a Syria expert at the University of Oklahama, said the Arab plan would force no concessions from Assad and that the Security Council had no alternative strategy to offer.
Without the credible threat of foreign intervention, Assad continues to feel confident that he can contain, if not beat, the opposition, Landis said. The United Nations is as divided over Syria as the Arab League is.
Qatar has proposed sending Arab peacekeepers to Syria, but no other Arab country has shown any enthusiasm for this.
Syria, keen to avoid tougher foreign action, has tried to show it is complying with the initial Arab peace plan.
This month the authorities freed hundreds of detainees, announced an amnesty, struck a ceasefire deal with rebels in one town, allowed observers into some troublespots and admitted some foreign journalists. Assad also renewed his pledges of reform.
SANA, the state news agency, said 5,255 prisoners had been released under an amnesty announced by Assad a week ago.
The violence, however, has raged on unabated.
The opposition Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said seven civilians were killed on Monday and 12 the previous day.
Activists said an army deserter fighting for the Free Syrian Army had been killed near the border with Lebanon.
SANA said Brigadier-General Hassan al-Ibrahim and another officer were killed on Sunday when insurgents shot at their car in Damascus province. He was the third brigadier killed in a week. It said 11 people were also killed in an attack in Homs.
(Additional reporting by Ayman Samir and Yasmine Saleh in Cairo, Dominic Evans and Erika Solomon in Beirut; Editing by Mark Heinrich)